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“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger is one of American literature’s most well-known coming-of-age novels. The book tackles modern alienation and the loss of innocence through the first-person narration of teenager Holden Caulfield. It’s a frame tale, or extended flashback, built from Holden’s memories.
The seventeen-year-old narrator and protagonist, Holden, speaks directly to the reader from a mental hospital or sanitarium in southern California. He recounts the incidents that happened over two days in December of the previous year. Holden describes his time as a Pencey Prep student. He was expelled after failing the majority of his classes.
Holden’s story begins on a Saturday after classes end at the Pencey prep school in Pennsylvania. Holden is in his fourth school; he has already failed three others. He has miserably failed four of his five classes at Pencey and has been informed that he is being expelled. However, he is not slated to return home to Manhattan until Wednesday.
Holden pays a visit to his elderly history instructor, Spencer, to say goodbye, but he becomes irritated when Spencer attempts to scold him for his low academic achievement. After returning to the dorm, Holden is further irritated by his unsanitary neighbor, Ackley, and his roommate, Stradlater.
Stradlater spends the evening with Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden used to date. Throughout the evening, Holden becomes increasingly concerned about Stradlater’s decision to take Jane out. When Stradlater returns, Holden asks him vehemently whether he attempted to have sex with her.
Stradlater teases Holden, who explodes and strikes Stradlater. Stradlater suffocates Holden and bloodies his nose. Holden decides he’s had enough of Pencey and chooses to return to Manhattan three days early, stay in a hotel, and not inform his parents he’s gone.
Holden encounters the mother of a Pencey student on the way to New York and drastically distorts the facts by telling her what a popular lad her son is. When he gets to Penn Station, he enters a phone booth and considers phoning multiple people, but he decides against it.
He hails a cab and inquires where the ducks in Central Park go when the lagoon freezes, but his inquiry irritates the driver. Holden instructs the cab driver to take him to the Edmont Hotel, where he checks in.
Holden’s Manhattan hotel room faces the windows of another part of the hotel, and he witnesses interesting and peculiar sexual activities. He views the couple’s actions as sexual play and is both angered and attracted by them. After a couple of cigarettes, he dials Faith Cavendish, a lady he has never met but whose phone number he obtained from a Princeton acquaintance.
Holden believes he recalls hearing she was a dancer and believes he can get her to have sex with him. While she is initially angry when he calls her, thinking that a stranger has phoned her at such a late hour, she eventually offers that they meet the next day. Holden doesn’t want to wait; instead, he hangs up without setting up a meeting.
He enters the Lavender Room and takes a seat in the hotel lounge, but the waiter recognizes him as a kid and refuses to serve him. He flirts with three women in their thirties who appear to be from out of town and are mainly looking for a sight of a star.
Despite this, Holden dances with them and declares that he is “half in love” with the blonde after witnessing how wonderfully she dances. They leave after making some wisecracks about his age and allowing him to pay their entire bill. Holden checks out of the Edmont and hails a cab to Ernie’s Jazz Club in Greenwich Village.
He sits alone at a table in Ernie’s, observing the other customers with disdain. He bumps across Lillian Simmons, a former girlfriend of his older brother, who invites him to sit with her and her boyfriend. Holden excuses himself, claims he needs to meet someone, and heads back to the Edmont.
Holden agrees to have Sunny, a prostitute, visit his room after a dismal night at Ernie’s Nightclub in Greenwich Village. He reconsiders, fabricates an excuse, and pays the girl to leave. Maurice, her pimp, soon reappears with her and knocks up Holden for more money, much to his astonishment. He was defeated in two fights in one night. It’s early Sunday morning.
After a short nap, Holden calls a regular date, Sally Hayes, and agrees to meet her that afternoon for a play. Meanwhile, Holden checks out of the hotel, goes to Grand Central Station to check his bags, and enjoys a late breakfast. He encounters two nuns, one of whom is an English teacher, and they debate Romeo and Juliet.
Holden is looking for a rare album named “Little Shirley Beans” for his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe. He notices a young boy singing, “If a body catches a body coming through the rye,” making Holden feel better.
Sally and Holden go ice skating at Radio City, but they end up fighting when Holden tries to talk about things that matter to him. He leaves and attends the Radio City Music Hall Christmas event, endures a movie, and becomes inebriated.
Holden is concerned about the ducks in Central Park’s lagoon throughout the novel. He tries to track them down but only ends up breaking Phoebe’s recorder in the process. He returns home to see his sister, exhausted both physically and mentally.
When he finally gets home and meets Phoebe, he tells her that he wishes he could be “the catcher in the rye.” He’d stand near the brink of a cliff, near a field of Rye, and catch any of the playing children who came dangerously close to tumbling off.
Later that night, when his parents get home, Holden sneaks out of the apartment to see Mr. Antolini. Mr. Antolini is his favorite teacher, and he plans to spend a few days at his house. Holden is startled awake in the early morning hours to see Antolini caressing his head. Holden quickly excuses himself and leaves, thinking Mr. Antolini is making a homosexual overture. He sleeps for a few hours on a bench at Grand Central Station.
Holden is at a sanitarium in California in the final chapter. Holden concludes his account here, warning the reader that he would not recount the story of how he returned home and became “sick.” He states that he’s looking forward to starting a new school in the fall and is cautiously enthusiastic about his future.
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